The leadership of the combined opposition parties in the parliament the MMA led by Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto and the PML led by Nawaz Sharif, on Friday had turned down the government invitation to attend the state banquet in honour of Bush, given the fact that he is backing a military dictator in Pakistan. However, none of the three major parties could pursue their scheduled protest rallies and demonstration in any part of the country, largely because of the fact that their mainstream leaders were put under house arrest.
The maverick MMA chief Qazi Hussain, who wanted to lead an anti-Bush rally in Islamabad, was put under house arrest at his Mansoora residence in Lahore a few days ago and was not allowed to proceed to the federal capital. The PPP senior vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Faheem and the senior vice president of PML, Raja Zafarul Haq were also placed under house arrest at their Islamabad residences. However, the MMA chief somehow managed to address a telephonic news conference on Saturday, saying the main objective of President Bush's visit was to make India a mini super power of the region and Pakistan a sub-state, primarily to undermine the status of the Islamic world.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who heads Tehreek-e-Insaf or Movement for Justice, was also detained at his Islamabad residence on Friday night after he was driven in a convoy of four police vehicles to his home on the banks of a lake near the Pakistani capital. "I have been placed under house arrest just to appease Bush. You would think I was Osama bin Laden the way they have treated me", Khan said on phone.
He said he was leaving a friend's house after dinner when police served him with a detention order to stop him leading a demonstration later on Saturday in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. The police had been following me for two days and I was planning to spend the night away from home because I knew the animal I was dealing with. Bush obviously agrees with Musharraf's version of democracy, which is to clamp down on anyone who protests against you", Imran Khan said.
On the other hand, some well placed government sources confided on condition of anonymity that during his one on one meeting with President Bush at the presidency on Saturday, General Musharraf provided some solid proof about the activities of the Indian Consulate in Kabul and its involvement in fomenting trouble in the Balochistan province. They added that the meeting lasted for quite a while in which matters pertaining to bilateral interests, war against terrorism, Kashmir issue, Pak-India dialogue, present situation in Afghanistan, Pak-Afghan border matters were discussed in length.
However, the diplomatic sources in Islamabad maintain that Musharraf's move was meant to ease off the increasing US pressure on Pakistan to cut off links with terrorist elements operating across the border in India and Afghanistan. While Musharraf continues to insist that he made sincere efforts to uproot al-Qaeda network from the troubled Pak-Afghan tribal belt besides putting an end to the cross border infiltration into the Indian administered Kashmir, Kabul and New Delhi keep questioning his willingness to effectively eliminate the insurgents operating from the Pakistani soil.
The Afghan government has accused Islamabad from time to time of turning a blind eye to the infiltration from Pakistan's tribal areas into Afghanistan. The latest development in this regard was a statement by Kabul following President Karzai's recent visit to Pakistan, saying that a list of 50 Taliban fugitives allegedly hiding on the Pak-Afghan tribal belt has been handed over to Islamabad with a request for their early arrest.
As President Bush reached Kabul on Wednesday on a surprised visit to meet President Karzai, the foreign media has quoted Bush as having said in Kabul that he would talk to President General Musharraf about cross border terrorism. Bush said that he is confident al-Qaida's chief, Osama bin Laden, will be found.
In a significant development, the day Bush reached Kabul, the Pakistani security forces launched an intense military operation in the South Waziristan area on the Pak-Afghan tribal belt and reportedly killed 35 to 40 al-Qaeda related terrorists, many of them foreigners. Helicopter gunships were also used in the operation for targeting the hideouts of the terrorists.
There has been unrest in the Waziristan region and other tribal areas for almost three years now, amid clashes and military actions between foreign fighters and the Pakistan Army. Operations have been carried out and it has subsequently been announced by Pakistan that these have been successfully wound up. Quite clearly, however, militant activity has not been eliminated; indeed there are reports of al-Qaeda and the Taliban militants re-grouping in the area.
While Islamabad strongly denies reports of Taliban and al-Qaeda infiltration into Afghanistan from the Pakistani side, the Karzai government insists that the infiltration was actually being orchestrated from the Pakistani border. Pakistani military authorities claim that there were 500-600 foreign militants in the South Waziristan area when Army operations first started in early 2004. Of them some 400 have either been killed or captured so far, according to the Army, while a remaining 200 still stranded in Waziristan, are now using the Pak-Afghan border strip as their base to launch mid-night guerilla attacks against the US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan, creating trouble for Karzai, besides embarrassing the most-trusted US ally in its war on terror - Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.
Since early 2005, the Army has killed and arrested hundreds of foreign militants and their local facilitators in North Waziristan. The events in Waziristan continue to make international headlines due to the strong Western belief that defeating militants in these borderlands would inflict a deadly blow on al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. American intelligence operatives stationed in Pakistan believe that Osama bin Laden and some of the top al-Qaeda figures are hiding somewhere in the mountain recesses of the region. For US-led coalition troops operating across the border in Afghanistan, effective Pakistani military operation in Waziristan holds the key to facilitating their job and saving lives in the battle against the al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Therefore, the Bush visit is being defined in Pakistan as a defining moment for the political future of President General Musharraf whose firm grip on the affairs of state has until now served the interests of Washington quite well, as he has been able to steer the country into the American camp as a trusted American ally in the war on terror.
However, with the Taliban remnants nowhere near defeated in Afghanistan and the Osama-led al-Qaeda still unbroken (which were the two major reasons that the US solicited Pakistan's assistance in the first place), Washington is looking at its allies in Islamabad in a new light: Musharraf may be more the problem than the solution.
Some well-connected diplomatic circles in Islamabad are of the view that the Bush administration is almost convinced now that a weaker Pakistani army is as necessary now as a powerful one was when Islamabad opted for a U-turn on its support for the Taliban soon after September 11, 2001. They insist that this realization has taken root over the past few months and has set alarm bells ringing among the military leadership of Pakistan.
They added that the October 2005 deadly earthquake in Kashmir, in which the extensive jehadi influence in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was made clear since they played a significant part in relief operations, convinced the Americans that the Pakistani army would never back out from its strategic activities in Kashmir through supporting the armed struggle in the Indian-administered part of the Valley.
The diplomatic circles say being the commander of Pakistan army, Musharraf, who derives much of his legitimacy from the army, simply cannot afford to abandon the so-called "Kashmir cause". At the same time, General Musharraf faces a lot of opposition within Pakistan for acting like a stooge and protecting and promoting the American interests at the cost of those of Pakistan. In contrast, the mainstream US media has in recent days been extremely critical of Pakistan's role.
The war on terror and nuclear proliferation remain the two major concerns for the US government in Pakistan and both have close cooperation on these two fronts. Apparently the Bush administration has been pushing Pakistan for more effective implementation of nuclear safeguards and export controls.
Yet there is a manifest divergence in terms of national objectives of Islamabad and Washington, and could come into play soon. The US feels frustrated that its proliferation concerns have not been fully addressed by Islamabad and wants direct access to Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, particularly in the context of current nuclear standoff with Iran to determine the extent of its nuclear capability. Analysts here believe the concern will heighten pressure on Pakistan, which it has resisted so far.
While the US State Department says President Bush's Pakistan visit underscores the American desire to broaden its relations with the country, it remains to be seen how far the US can afford keeping General Musharraf --who had been deceiving Uncle Sam by making him believe that "Pakistan is plagued by all these mullahs and jehadis and I am the only secular leader who can save you from their wrath" in power.
As a matter of fact, he continues to thrive on these very clerics and militants. After all, if they weren't operating, why should Uncle Sam need him to stay on?